Joan K. Hayward
The grandmother of Helen Corser Fox, Town of Bristol Historian, saw from her bedroom window in the 1880s the spectacle of the "burning spring." Author Jane Hayward thanks Helen Fox and James DeVoll of Shortsville, NY, who compiled "Works Relating to the Burning Spring" for their assistance with this article.
The phenomenon of Burning Spring in the town of Bristol, Ontario County, New York, has been noted for over 330 years. In August, 1669, Robert Cavelier de La Salle, an intrepid 26-year-old French explorer, accompanied by Jesuit priests, visited the Seneca Indian village of Ganagaro (near Victor, New York). Father Rene Galinee wrote: "In order to pass away the time I went with M. de La Salle, under escort of two Indians, about four leagues south of Ganagaro where we were staying, to see an extraordinary spring…I applied a torch and the water immediately took fire and burned like brandy, and was not extinguished until it rained…" The flames were said to be as tall as a man.
During the year 1700 the Earl of Bellomont, Governor of the Province of New York, gave instructions to a Colonel Romer whom he sent on a journey through the Iroquois country. "You are to go and view a well or spring which is eight miles beyond the Senicks furthest castle, which they have told me blazes up in flame when a light coale or firebrand is put to it. You will do well to taste the said water, and give me your opinion thereof, and bring with you some of it." Colonel Romer was unable to visit Burning Spring during his travels.
DeWitt Clinton, one-time governor of New York State, claimed bubbles coming through apertures or spiracula in the shale were composed of carburetted hydrogen gas and sometimes contained a small amount of calcareous mix as is evident from its slight effervesence with sulfuric acid. It was realized that gas emanating through fissures could be ignited, but that the water itself did not burn.
Mr. Clinton was told there were burning springs in Middlesex, Canandaigua, Bloomfield, Richmond (Honeoye), near Utica, in Cattaraugus County, and in Canada. James Hall, a geologist, reported in 1843 that "along the outlet of Crooked Lake there were several places where gas is seen to rise."
There were several articles written in the 1800s describing the geology of the area of Burning Spring. It was concluded from these findings that this strata of Genesee slate held an abundance of coal and or oil. Bristol Valley lies between the valleys containing Canandaigua and Honeoye Lakes. This valley has no lake but does have a central stream called Mud Creek. The rock-bottomed brook of Burning Spring runs into Mud Creek from the west.
Oil fever broke out in 1864, the whole valley from Rushville to Naples was prospected, and companies were created to bore for oil and coal in areas of burning springs. The Bristol Pioneer Petroleum Company was formed, but penetrating to depths of 300 to 1200 feet was to no avail—only salt was found.
Finally in 1869 drilling began for natural gas, a hydrocarbon mixture composed mostly of methane. Several wells were sunk in the Bristol and Honeoye region and local homes were heated for many years, including the house on the farm on which Burning Spring is located. Of wells drilled during that era to depths of 800 to 2500 feet, eighteen were still producing in 1937.
The first recorded owner of the 83 acres where Burning Spring is located is identified as Daniel Burt. Next Walter B. Case obtained the property. He built a log cabin, prepared a picnic area, and charged admission to enter the ravine. Then Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Jones owned the farm for forty some years. Most recently their son, Alan Jones has title to the property.
The blue and gold Department of Tranportation sign on State Route 64 in Bristol was removed over twenty years ago. It had been erected many years previously and never replaced although the word "Burning" was misspelled on both sides of the cast metal site marker as "Burninig."
Another sign, still on site, was installed by the New York State Education Department in 1927 at the entrance of what had been at one time called Wilder Glen. It indicated the way through the gully to the waterfall and small cave where the flames burned brightest. Water in a tin can put over a flame would boil, and eggs or meat would cook.
July of 1937 was chosen to commemorate La Salle's visit to the area and the 250th anniversary of the Denonville Expedition. A pageant was held at Burning Spring attended by 1500 spectators. The WPA had prepared the dirt road to the glen and a nearby field was used for parking vehicles. Rochester Gas and Electric installed amplifiers to broadcast voices and music to the crowd. The Rochester Neighborhood Society of Indians and Native Americans from the Cattaraugus Reservation participated in the ceremony. For more than an hour the pageant was aired over radio station WHAM in Rochester by the NBC Blue Network. This program was held in conjunction with other celebrations that month in Victor, Bloomfield, Mendon, Fort Niagara and Irondequoit.
Remembrances of end-of-school-year picnics and Sunday School outings at Burning Spring through the 1920s until the 1950s, abound in the memories of us that enjoyed the history and lore of this place. The nearly mile-long hike from the entrance of the glen to the cave was travelled enthusiastically, and the thirty-foot falls were a tempting challenge to adventuresome climbers.
During the 1940s the New York State Parks Commission investigated maintaining the glen, but the decision was made that there was not enough space for parking and that the natural gas supply would be short-lived if lighted too often.
Recently my sister and I, after a fifty-year hiatus, once again returned to the still pretty glen. At a much slower pace than in years gone by, we made the hike to the falls. The ravine has reverted to nature. We often had to walk in the stream because the paths and trails are overgrown. Fallen trees and rock slides cover many of the sites where once "water burned" in Bristol. We had matches but could not find any bubbles to light.
© 2000, Joan K. Hayward